“I’m obliged to ye for the compliment, sir,” Jamie replied dryly, one eye on the railing, where the cocked hat of the cutter’s captain had suddenly poked up like an ill-omened mushroom. He unbuckled his belt, slid the dirk’s scabbard free, and handed it to me.
“Keep that for me, Sassenach,” he said under his breath, buckling his belt again.
The cutter’s captain, a squat middle-aged man with a sullen brow and a pair of much-mended breeches, took a quick, piercing look around the deck when he came aboard, nodded to himself as though his worst suspicions had been confirmed, then shouted back over his shoulder for six men to follow.
“Search the hold,” he said to his minions. “You know what to look for.”
“What sort of way is this to carry on?” Captain Roberts demanded angrily. “You’ve no right to search my ship! What do you lot think you are, a raft of bloody pirates?”
“Do I look like a pirate?” The cutter’s captain looked more pleased than insulted by the idea.
“Well, you can’t be a naval captain, I’m sure,” Roberts said coldly. “A nice, gentlemanlike set of individuals, I’ve always found His Majesty’s navy. Not the sort to board a respectable merchant without leave, let alone without proper introduction.”
The cutter’s captain appeared to find this funny. He took off his hat and bowed—to me.
“Allow me, mum,” he said. “Captain Worth Stebbings, your most humble.” He straightened up, clapping on his hat, and nodded to his lieutenant. “Go through the holds like a dose of salts. And you—” He tapped Roberts on the chest with a forefinger. “Get all your men on deck, front and center, cully. All of them, mind. If I have to drag them up here, I won’t be best pleased, I warn you.”
Tremendous bangings and rumblings from below ensued, with seamen popping up periodically to relay news of their findings to Captain Stebbings, who lounged by the rail, watching as the men of the Teal were rounded up and herded together on deck—Ian and Jamie among them.
“Here, now!” Captain Roberts was game, I’d give him that. “Mr. Fraser and his nephew aren’t crew; they’re paying passengers! You’ve no call to molest free men, about their lawful business. And no right to press my crew, either!”
“They’re British subjects,” Stebbings informed him briefly. “I’ve every right. Or do you all claim to be Americans?” He leered briefly at that; if the ship could be considered a rebel vessel, he could simply take the whole thing as a prize, crew and all.
A mutter at this ran through the men on deck, and I saw more than one of the hands’ eyes dart to the belaying pins along the rail. Stebbings saw it, too, and called over the rail for four more men to be brought aboard—with arms.
Sixteen minus six minus four is six, I thought, and edged a little closer to the rail to peer into the cutter rocking in the swell a little way below and tethered by a line to the Teal. If the sixteen doesn’t include Captain Stebbings. If it does…
One man was at the helm, this being not a wheel but a sort of sticklike arrangement poking up through the deck. Two more were manning a gun, a long brass thing on the bow, pointed at the Teal’s side. Where were the others? Two on deck. The others perhaps below.
Captain Roberts was still haranguing Stebbings behind me, but the cutter’s crew were bumping barrels and bundles over the deck, calling for a rope to lower away to the cutter. I looked back to find Stebbings walking along the row of crewmen, indicating his choices to four burly men who followed him. These jerked his choices out of line and set about tying them together, a line running from ankle to ankle. Three men had already been chosen, John Smith among them, looking white-faced and tense. My heart jumped at sight of him, then nearly stopped altogether as Stebbings came to Ian, who looked down at him impassively.
“Likely, likely,” Stebbings said with approval. “A cross-grained son of a bitch, by the looks of you, but we’ll soon knock sense into you. Take him!”
I saw the muscles swell in Ian’s forearms as his fists clenched, but the pressgang was armed, two with pistols drawn, and he stepped forward, though with an evil look that would have given a wiser man pause. I had already observed that Captain Stebbings was not a wise man.
Stebbings took two more, then paused at Jamie, looking him up and down. Jamie’s face was carefully blank. And slightly green; the wind was still up, and with no forward way on the ship, she was rising and falling heavily, with a lurch that would have disconcerted a much better sailor than he was.
“Nice big ’un, sir,” said one of the press-gang, with approval.
“Trifle elderly,” Stebbings said dubiously. “And I don’t much like the look on his face.”
“I dinna care much for the look of yours,” Jamie said pleasantly. He straightened, squaring his shoulders, and looked down his long, straight nose at Stebbings. “If I didna ken ye for an arrant coward by your actions, sir, I should know ye for a fig-licker and a fopdoodle by your foolish wee face.”
Stebbings’s maligned face went blank with astonishment, then darkened with rage. One or two of the press-gang grinned behind his back, though hastily erasing these expressions as he whirled round.
“Take him,” he growled to the press-gang, shouldering his way toward the booty collected by the rail. “And see that you drop him a few times on the way.”
I was frozen in shock. Clearly Jamie couldn’t let them press Ian and take him away, but surely he couldn’t mean to abandon me in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, either.
Not even with his dirk thrust into the pocket tied beneath my skirt, and my own knife in its sheath around my thigh.
Captain Roberts had watched this little performance openmouthed, though whether with respect or astonishment, I couldn’t tell. He was a short man, rather tubby, and clearly not constructed for physical confrontation, but he set his jaw and stamped up to Stebbings, seizing him by the sleeve.
The crew ushered their captives over the rail.
There wasn’t time to think of anything better.
I seized the rail and more or less rolled over it, skirts flying. I hung by my hands for a terrifying instant, feeling my fingers slide across the wet wood, groping with my toes for the rope ladder the cutter’s crew had thrown over the rail. A roll of the ship threw me hard against the side, I lost my grip, plunged several feet, and caught the ladder, just above the cutter’s deck.
The rope had burned through my right hand, and it felt as though I’d lost all the skin off my palm, but there was no time to trouble about that now. Any minute, one of the cutter’s crew would see me, and—
Timing my jump to the next heave of the cutter’s deck, I let go and landed like a bag of rocks. A sharp pain shot up the inside of my right knee, but I staggered to my feet, lurching to and fro with the roll of the deck, and lunged toward the companionway.
“Here! You! What you doing?” One of the gunners had seen me and was gaping at me, clearly unable to decide whether to come down and deal with me or stay with his gun. His partner looked over his shoulder at me and bellowed at the first man to stay put, it wasn’t but monkey business of some sort, he said. “Stay put, God damn your eyes!”
I ignored them, my heart pounding so hard I could scarcely breathe. What now? What next? Jamie and Ian had disappeared.
“Jamie!” I shouted, as loudly as I could. “I’m here!” And then ran toward the line that held the cutter to the Teal, jerking up my skirt as I ran. I did this only because my skirts had twisted in my undignified descent, and I couldn’t find the slit to reach through in order to get at the knife in its sheath on my thigh, but the action itself seemed to disconcert the helmsman, who had turned at my shout.
He gawped like a goldfish, but had sufficient presence of mind as to keep his hand on the tiller. I got my own hands on the line and dug my knife into the knot, using it to pry the tight coils loose.
Roberts and his crew, bless them, were making a terrible racket on the Teal above, quite drowning out the shouts of the helm and gunners. One of these, with a desperate glance toward the deck of the Teal above, finally made up his mind and came toward me, jumping down from the bow.
What wouldn’t I give for a pistol just now? I thought grimly. But a knife was what I had, and I jerked it out of the half-loosened knot and drove it into the man’s chest as hard as I could. His eyes went round, and I felt the knife strike bone and twist in my hand, skipping through the flesh. He shrieked and fell backward, landing on deck in a thump and nearly—but not quite—taking my knife with him.
“Sorry,” I gasped, and, panting, resumed work on the knot, the fractious rope now smeared with blood. There were noises coming from the companionway now. Jamie and Ian might not be armed, but my guess was that that wouldn’t matter a lot, in close quarters.
The rope slid reluctantly free. I jerked the last coil loose and it fell, slapping against the Teal’s side. At once, the current began to carry the boats apart, the smaller cutter sliding past the big sloop. We weren’t moving quickly at all, but the optical illusion of speed made me stagger, gripping at the rail for balance.
The wounded gunner had got onto his feet and was advancing on me, staggering but furious. He was bleeding, but not heavily, and was by no means disabled. I stepped quickly sideways and glancing at the companionway, was relieved beyond measure to see Jamie coming out of it.
He reached me in three strides.
“Quick, my dirk!”
I stared blankly at him for a moment, but then remembered, and with no more than minimum fumbling, managed to get at my pocket. I jerked at the hilt of the dirk, but it was tangled in the fabric. Jamie seized it, ripped it free—tearing both the pocket and the waistband of my skirt in the process—whirled, and charged back into the bowels of the ship. Leaving me facing a wounded gunner, an unwounded gunner now making his way cautiously down from his station, and the helmsman, who was yelling hysterically for someone to do something to some sort of sail.
I swallowed and took a good hold on the knife.
“Stand back,” I said, in as loud and commanding a voice as I could manage. Given my shortness of breath, the wind, and the prevailing noise, I doubt they heard me. On the other hand, I doubted that it would have made a difference if they had. I yanked my sagging skirt up with one hand, crouched, and lifted the knife in a determined manner, meant to indicate that I knew what to do with it. I did.
Waves of heat were going over my skin and I felt perspiration prickle my scalp, drying at once in the cold wind. The panic had gone, though; my mind felt very clear and very remote.
You aren’t going to touch me was the only thing in my mind. The man I had wounded was cautious, hanging back. The other gunner saw nothing but a woman and didn’t bother to arm himself, simply reaching for me with angry contempt. I saw the knife move upward, fast, and arc as though moving by itself, the shimmer of it dulled with blood as I slashed him across the forehead.
Blood poured down over his face, blinding him, and he gave a strangled yell of hurt and astonishment and backed away, both hands pressed to his face.
I hesitated for a moment, not quite sure what to do next, the blood still pounding through my temples. The ship was drifting, rising and falling on the waves; I felt the gold-laden hem of my skirt scrape across the boards, and jerked the torn waistband up again, feeling irritated.
Then I saw a belaying pin stuck into its hole in the railing, a line wrapped round it. I walked over and, poking the knife down the bodkin of my stays for lack of any better place to put it, took hold of the pin with both hands and jerked it free. Holding it like a short baseball bat, I shifted back on one heel and brought it down with as much force as I could on the head of the man whose face I’d slashed. The wooden pin bounced off his skull with a hollow ringing noise, and he staggered away, caroming off the mast.
The helmsman at this point had had enough. Leaving his helm to mind itself, he scrambled up out of his station and made for me like an angry monkey, all reaching limbs and bared teeth. I tried to hit him with the pin, but I’d lost my grip when I struck the gunner, and it slipped out of my hand, rolling away down the heaving deck as the helmsman flung himself on me.
He was small and thin, but his weight bore me back and we lurched together toward the rail; my back struck it and all my breath rushed out in a whoosh, the impact a solid bar of shock across my kidneys. This transformed within seconds to live agony, and I writhed under him, sliding downward. He came with me, grappling for my throat with a single-minded purpose. I flailed at him, my arms, my hands striking windmill-like at his head, the bones of his skull bruising me.
The wind was roaring in my ears; I heard nothing but breathless cursing, harsh gasps that might be mine or his, and then he knocked my hands away and grabbed me by the neck, one-handed, his thumb digging hard up under my jaw.
It hurt and I tried to knee him, but my legs were swaddled in my skirt and pinned beneath his weight. My vision went dark, with little bursts of gold light going off in the blackness, tiny fireworks heralding my death. Someone was making little mewling noises, and I realized dimly that it must be me. The grip on my neck tightened, and the flashing lights faded into black.
I WOKE WITH A confused sense of being simultaneously terrified and rocked in a cradle. My throat hurt, and when I tried to swallow, the resultant pain made me choke.
“Ye’re all right, Sassenach.” Jamie’s soft voice came out of the surrounding gloom—where was I?—and his hand squeezed my forearm, reassuring.
“I’ll… take your… word for it,” I croaked, the effort making my eyes water. I coughed. It hurt, but seemed to help a little. “What… ?”
“Have a bit of water, a nighean.” A big hand cradled my head, lifting it a bit, and the mouth of a canteen pressed against my lip. Swallowing the water hurt, too, but I didn’t care; my lips and throat were parched, and tasted of salt.